As I write this post, we are entering the 15th day of the conflict between Israel and the Hamas in Gaza. The number of casualties on both sides is rising, and life here in Israel continues between air raid alerts. Two weeks ago, as rockets started raining over Israel, my daughter asked me “how long do you think this will last?” My answer was “up to 10 days”. I didn’t just make up an answer. I tried to use my best judgment and infer from previous rounds. Needless to say, I was wrong. Indeed how long will this round of violence last?

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Battle moved into Gaza neighborhoods

Initially I believed we will go through the “normal” routine: Hamas fires rockets; Israel retaliates through targeted air strikes; within 7-10 days a cease fire is enforced by the international community; the two opponents walk back to their corners waiting for the “next round” to take place within 18-24mon. This has been the scenario since Israel pulled out of the Gaza strip 8 years ago and the Hamas took over.

However this round seems to be different. The Hamas has learned a few lessons from previous rounds. Using help from Hezbollah experts, weapons smuggled from Iran, and funding from Qatar it prepared itself for a long standoff. Hundreds of tunnels were dug throughout Gaza serving as shelters for Hamas military personnel, rocket launchers and ammunition. The tunnels helped Hamas withstand the Israeli aerial bombing and still fire hundreds of rockets a day at Israel.

Israel also learned a few lessons. The Iron Dome rocket defense system has been further improved and widely deployed. It deflected most of Hamas rocket attacks and helped minimize damage and casualties within Israeli population. Past rounds taught Israel that Palestinian civilian casualties are not only immoral, but also lead to international pressure and negative public opinion. Accordingly, air strikes have been constrained, at the expense of reducing the damage inflicted on Hamas war apparatus.

Towards the 10th day it seemed as if both sides might still play their traditional roles.  Talks about an imminent cease fire led me to believe that my prediction will come true. But it didn’t. What changed?

First and foremost, the Hamas found itself internationally isolated. The new regime in Egypt, led by president (and former General) El-Sisi, launched a campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian parent movement of Hamas. True to its Sunni roots, Hamas aligned itself with those who rose against Syria’s President Assad. In the process it also alienated Iran and Hezbollah who side with Assad.  Alone and cornered, Hamas seems to resort to extreme measures in order to break out of isolation.

Secondly, Hamas is under tremendous economic pressure. Within Gaza the Hamas isn’t just a terror organization – it is also the local government, and thus it carries economic and social responsibility for Gaza residents. For years, smuggling tunnels dug between Gaza and Egypt provided economic ‘air supply’ to Hamas, in addition to hauling in weapons and ammunition. The tunnels were recently closed by Egypt, and the blockade which is now fully enforced by both Israel and Egypt puts tremendous pressure on the Hamas government. There are over 40,000 government workers without pay, and Hamas realizes that without economic relief, its government will be toppled by angry, hungry and unemployed Gazans.

Thirdly, Hamas has internalized and implemented the tactics of asymmetric warfare. With its personnel and ammunition protected under ground, it can afford continuing the “resistance”, exerting toll on Israel and creating a humanitarian crisis that plays to its advantage. The civilian casualties are directly translated into diplomatic pressure on Israel to end the hostilities.

So what’s the next move? Well, it depends whether you view Hamas as a radical Islamic terror group, or as a semi-rational political organization.

If the Hamas is indeed the local version of the recently established Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), then it will not stop till it fulfills its stated mission to establish an Islamic state at the expense of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. To quote the Hamas Charter: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”. Under these assumptions, the Hamas will never lay down its weapons, and the conflict between Israel and the Hamas is a war of annihilation. The only “solution” Israel can pursue is to reoccupy Gaza, obliterate the Hamas leaders and operatives, and with international help install another government there – for example the Palestinian Authority.

However if the Hamas is a semi-rational political organization, then it will seek a solution that allows it to stay in control over Gaza, while making some concessions to Israel and Egypt. Israel has repeatedly stated that its goal is not to obliterate Hamas, but rather restore quiet to its citizens. The goals of the IDF ground operation in Gaza have been fairly limited as such.

I truly hope that we are dealing with ‘option 2’ and that we are heading towards some sort of an agreement between Israel, Egypt and the Hamas. Even so, violence is likely to continue for a few more days, or even a week. Why?

At this point the Hamas seems to believe it is leading the round in points. It has managed to continue to fire rockets at Israel, while “dragging” IDF into a ground campaign on its own turf. The battle is waged within the narrow allies of Gaza, where guerilla warfare can challenge any modern Army. Hamas operatives fire at IDF soldiers from within houses and use tunnels to move around. IDF strives to minimize civilian casualties, forcing its soldiers to think twice before returning fire. Hamas “scores” each times it hits an IDF soldier and it scores again each time IDF accidentally hits a civilian. While the casualties within Hamas operatives are high, what the media follows is IDF casualties and Palestinian civilian casualties.

IDF isn’t standing still either. It uses the ground operation to methodically search and destroy the tunnels Hamas dug over the years – primarily those that run underneath the border between Israel and Gaza. The tunnels are considered by Hamas as ‘strategic weapons’ since they allow them to launch surprise attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. The ratio between Hamas casualties and IDF casualties indicates that IDF has been quite effective in hurting Hamas personnel. So it is a matter of time before Hamas will cave in. But will the international community afford IDF that time?

With each side believing that time is on their side, there is no immediate incentive to stop the fighting. Hamas is waiting for the international community to force Israel to halt its offensive, while Israel continues to deal blows to Hamas hoping it will soften its stance by the time negotiations begin. In the meantime, civilians on both sides are paying the price.

I sincerely hope that Israel is fighting a semi-rational political organization, rather than the local version of ISIS.  In the former case, violence should subside in a matter of days and talks will begin. In the latter, we are looking at many more weeks of hostilities and mounting casualties on both sides; including unfortunately hundreds of innocent civilians in Gaza.

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